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'It'll ultimately matter in 2024': Behind Kamala Harris' early Wisconsin visit

Powerhouse races in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania often overshadow Wisconsin on the political scene, but coming contests have national implications for both parties.
Image: Vice President Kamala Harris and EPA Administrator Michael Regan visit Wisconsin
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks Monday in Milwaukee about the importance of funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law to remove and replace lead pipes across the country.Patrick McDermott / Reuters

MILWAUKEE — Vice President Kamala Harris landed here for a few hours Monday, and Democrats exhaled.

They saw a visit from the vice president in January as a sign not just that the Biden administration is taking Wisconsin seriously as it recalibrates its messaging before the midterm elections, but also that the cause Harris took up — replacing lead pipes to provide clean drinking water — is a serious issue that disproportionately affects the Black city residents Democrats struggled to engage in the 2020 presidential race.

They are precisely the voters Democrats need to win over to expand support in this Midwestern battleground state, where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by just more than 20,000 votes.

Powerhouse races in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania often overshadow Wisconsin on the national political scene. But it’s undeniable that the fall contests here have national implications for both parties.

The fight to unseat Republican Ron Johnson could help tip the balance of power in the Senate next year, while the possible ousting of first-term Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could help shape how the state election is administered in 2024 and what kind of Covid mitigation efforts are put in place in this deeply polarized state. Beyond that, Democrats say that if they’re to better reach Black voters in a presidential year, they’d better start building on that infrastructure now.

“I don’t know why Wisconsin doesn’t make national news, because this is one of the most obviously decrepit places for people of color in the country,” said the Rev. Greg Lewis, the founder and executive director of Souls to the Polls, a group led by pastors that seeks to increase civic engagement among Black residents.

Lewis complained about water that residents on the city’s predominantly Black north side couldn’t drink and a lack of affordable housing that has reached crisis levels. Harris’ visit Monday to the city’s Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership facility, he said, was a good start. But he urged Biden to make the trip, as well.

“It just would be a good look if they showed a face in our neighborhood,” Lewis said. “Just step on the ground, see how people are living. Walk through a neighborhood. I think that would speak volumes.”

Nationally, Biden is bleeding Black support, a troubling sign for a president who was ushered into the White House in 2020 by a coalition of diverse groups. A national NBC News poll released last week found that Biden’s Black support dropped from 83 percent in April to 64 percent.

And for Democrats in 2020, the Black vote in Milwaukee remained stagnant, despite attempts to make strides since Hillary Clinton’s lackluster performance among the Black community in Milwaukee in 2016. That’s in part because Black voters feel disaffected and taken for granted by Democrats. But local Democrats accuse Republicans of creating hurdles to voting, keeping people of color away from the ballot box.

Milwaukee remains a Democratic stronghold. But in Wisconsin, where presidential contests are determined by less than a percentage point, gains or losses at the margins can tip the balance.

“With a governor’s race and a Senate race, it makes sense for us to start investing in a state like Wisconsin now, because it'll ultimately matter in 2024,” said a White House adviser, who was not authorized to discuss details of future plans publicly.

In addition to Wisconsin, this adviser said, spending the president and the vice president’s timeand party dollars now in states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania “squares perfectly with states where we need to do well in 2024 to hold on to the White House.”

”Why wouldn't we?” the adviser asked. “It makes perfect sense for us to start investing now.”

The adviser added that Harris’ trip to Milwaukee was an early example of how White House officials and Cabinet members intend to hit the road to explain to Americans how the bipartisan infrastructure law Biden signed and other achievements will benefit them personally.

The adviser also said the White House is working with the Democratic National Committee to expand its presence in states like Wisconsin. The DNC has promised resources to expand voter registration efforts while adding communications, organizing staff and voter protection staff.

Seeming to poke Democrats in the eye, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., whose fundraising prowess has already generated buzz about a possible 2024 campaign, traveled to Milwaukee last fall to reopen a party field office on the north side.

"Sometimes in order to make the kind of progress that is necessary you have to go where you're not invited," Scott said at the time, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "Because when you have a story to tell you can't really expect them to come where you are. You have to go to where they are."

A second White House official described Harris’ latest mission as an effort to “just get out in the country and talk to people and explain what the administration has been up to for the last year and to get some reconnaissance" on what people want. The official added that the increase in the frequency of the trips “will be noticeable.”

“We are looking for places that have local issues and how we can address those local issues," the official said, discussing what will inform Harris' domestic travel schedule. “There are a lot of other considerations. Covid is a consideration that is not to be underestimated.”

Democrats here, as in other parts of the country, say there’s a top-down messaging problem. They complain that while Biden has victories to celebrate — including the bipartisan infrastructure bill and billions of dollars in Covid relief — he isn’t registering with the public.

“The White House needs to do a better job of selling these victories and making it clear to their base how these bills and all their executive actions are improving people’s lives,” said Sachin Chheda, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist. “They need to make the case better in the local media, in Black media, with more events in the community, getting more supporters engaged.

“There’s not currently a very deep effort that anyone can see,” he added.

Harris pointed to the administration’s $48 million federal investment in replacing lead pipes in Wisconsin at an event Monday alongside other state politicians, including Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore.

At one stop in her tour of the Regional Training Partnership facility, Harris spoke to Deanna Branch, who was bearing pictures her son drew of the “lead monster.”

“It means a lot to me and my community that I am hearing and talking to you on their behalf,” Branch said, according to a pool report.

Harris responded, according to the report, “You put the call out and it was heard.”

Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who was also touring the training center, referred in his remarks to a recent study that found that Black children living at or below the poverty level are four times more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

“The tragedy of lead is shared by too many communities, especially Black and Latino communities,” he said.

Harris’ visit made local TV news Monday and captured some headlines in local publications.

But Democrats here still privately grouse about Biden’s anemic presence in Wisconsin in 2020, after all of the work Milwaukee political and civic leaders put into winning the city’s bid to host the Democratic National Convention.

As Covid metastasized across the country and with vaccinations not yet available, Biden cut way back on his travel in 2020, saying he was following rules set out by scientists. While he did some traveling, he ultimately accepted the Democratic nomination in his home state, Delaware, rather than Milwaukee.

Asked whether Biden could be excused for a lack of on-the-ground presence here in 2020 given the state of the pandemic, Lewis was pointed in his response.

“Yeah,” he said. “But he went to other places.”